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Why Biotechnology Will Not Feed the World 

Center For Food Safety / Joseph Mendelson undated

Joseph Mendelson is the Legal Director of the Center For Food Safety 

World hunger is a very real problem. Conservative estimates are that more than 800 million people go to bed hungry every night. Seizing on this global crisis the proponents of agricultural biotechnology have spent tens of millions of dollars advertising genetically engineered foods as a key component in the future eradication of hunger. Their central claim is that biotechnology will rapidly expand crop yields thereby feeding a hungry world. Before examining the issue of whether biotechnology actually creates more food, it is important to examine the premise of the biotech industry's ad campaign; namely the idea that world hunger is caused by an insufficient amount of food. A deeper analysis of the causes of hunger reveals that that hunger is not caused by a lack of food. In fact, food production has kept pace with population growth. It is the inability of the world's poor to access this food that is the problem. 


The world produces more than sufficient grain and other foodstuffs for all people to enjoy a healthy diet. Studies by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) clearly and consistently show that it is abundance, not scarcity that best describes the world's food supply. Every year, enough wheat, rice, and other grains are produced to provide every human with 3,500 calories daily. Yet the hundreds of millions who are undernourished cannot gain access to this food. They are simply too poor to buy the food. Additionally, they do not have the land and other productive resources to grow it themselves. Over 80% of the world's starving children live in nations that are net exporters of food. This includes India where, even as families starve, over 44 million tons of surplus wheat and rice are being considered for export out of the country. Even in the United States, the world's number one food exporter, 33 million men, women and children are considered among the world's hungry. Statistic after statistic reveals that increased availability of food at a global level does not necessarily translate into increased food security at the national or household level. Developments in biotechnology will not alter the fundamental causes of hunger. Rather, as will be described below, increased patenting of biotech foods could further limit access to foods and could exacerbate the problem. What is needed to currently address world hunger is not the spread of biotechnology, but rather more equity in global income and massive land reform in many of the world's nations 


While admitting food supply is currently not the problem with world hunger, some may argue that increased food production might someday become necessary. Even assuming that expanding production capacity might be vital to alleviating hunger in the future, independent research reveals that biotechnology might well be counterproductive. For example, a recent two-year study by the University of Nebraska showed soybeans genetically engineered to be herbicide resistant actually produced lower yields than conventional soybeans. The University's researchers showed that Monsanto's "Roundup Ready "soybeans yield 6 percent less than their closest relative and 11 percent less than high yielding soybean varieties." This averages to three fewer bushels per acre -- hardly an answer to world hunger. Other research involving more that 8,200 field trials herbicide tolerant seeds produced similar results with the biotech varieties producing 6.7% fewer bushels of soybeans as compared with non-genetically engineered varieties. Moreover, farmers are increasingly complaining of crop losses of up to 40% because some engineered soybeans crack in hot climates allowing fungal infestation of the beans. Meanwhile, the biotechnology industry has yet to produce its first peer reviewed study demonstrating increased yield through genetic engineering. 


Far from being the solution to the world's hunger problem, the rapid introduction of genetically engineered crops may actually threaten the nutritional value of food. The unique processes involved in the genetic engineering of food (including insertion of bacterial vectors, new genetic constructs, viral promoters and anti-biotic marker systems at the cellular level) can lower the nutritional value of food. In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration's Divisions of Food Chemistry & Technology examined this problem of the genetic instability of foods. The found that genetic engineering could result in safe food becoming toxic and in the creation of novel allergens. Importantly for the hunger debate they specifically warned that the genetic engineering of foods could result in "undesirable alteration in the level of nutrients" of such foods. The scientists further noted that these negative nutritional changes "may escape breeder's attention unless genetically engineered plants are evaluated specifically for these changes." Unfortunately, their advice was not heeded and current genetically engineered foods have never been subjected to mandatory government testing for lower nutrition. Ironically, given biotech's potential for creating food with lower nutritional value, much of the biotechnology industry's public relations campaign suggests that biotechnology is, or will be, producing food with enhanced nutritional value. The companies have especially touted the development of so-called "golden rice" - a rice variety engineered to produce the precursor of vitamin A called beta-carotene. Biotech companies have hyped the rice as a means to solve vitamin A deficiencies among poor children in developing countries. However, the rice has never left the researchers lab in that it has several intrinsic problems. First, it does not express the vitamin in sufficient amounts. Even the researchers admit that to get the get the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A from "golden rice" a four-year-old child would have to consume a ludicrous 27 cups of rice per day. Second, even if vitamin A could be somehow delivered via a biotech food it would not solve the problem. While many poor children lack vitamin A is their diets, they also lack the fat and protein necessary to convert the beta-carotene in "golden rice" into vitamin A their bodies can use. 


Far from alleviating world hunger, biotechnology is on the verge of catastrophically increasing the problem. This is most evident in one of biotech's most highly publicized achievements. In an attempt to maintain absolute control over the use of their products, most companies have produced "genetic use restriction technologies" otherwise known as "Terminator" seeds: a method of incorporating novel genes into a plant causing the plant to produce sterile seeds. This is also called "suicide" technology as the crop makes itself sterile after one growing season. This makes sense for the companies who want farmers to come back each year to buy seed and who want to ensure that their seed are not being replanted. However, it is a disaster for the world's farmers. For millennia, small farmers have cut costs and bred plants for local conditions by saving seeds for later replanting. Over 80% of the world's farmers depend on seed saving for the livelihoods. "Terminator" seeds will make this key element of subsistence farming impossible and small farmers who seek the "benefits" of genetically engineered seeds will have to purchase new seeds annually from a handful of companies. Most likely, this will mean that farmers will be unable to afford the high price placed on these seeds. Moreover, some though not all, "suicide" genes could jump from genetically engineered plants to conventional plants. This biological pollution could render large numbers of crops sterile causing massive crop failures and starvation. The "Terminator" is not the only biotech threat to food security. Modern agriculture is dependent upon a relatively small number of commercial crop species, some of which are dominated by a relatively small number of varieties within the species. The lack of genetic variability or diversity in these crops means that they can be highly susceptible to plant pathogens which could wipe out a significant proportion of a crop in a very short time. This problem contributed to the 1970 U.S. Corn Blight that resulted in up to 15% reduction in corn yields. Biotechnology exponentially increases this diversity problem as it promotes a tiny number of genetically engineered varieties as a substitute for the wider array of crop varieties used around the world. Further through biological pollution, especially of open pollinated corps such as corn, biotech foods could destroy the biological integrity of conventional crops leading to the end of crop diversity as we have known it. The adoption of genetic engineering techniques also threatens to undermine the future advances in plant breeding research to foster diversity. Increasingly, private researchers are focused solely on creating new biotechnology applications at the expense of public plant breeding programs that have been the backbone of farming this century. A recent survey of public plant breeders found that the pursuit of corporate patent rights in the area of biotechnology has harmed their ability to research new plant varieties. New research often focuses on the genetic engineering of plants designed to be used in concert with companies' herbicide products instead of focusing on traditional breeding practices designed to produce, for example, drought-tolerant varieties. This loss of public plant breeding research is very significant in that it has been shown that conventional plant breeding and other techniques can actually increase yield and nutrition in plants. 


Virtually all genetically engineered seeds are subject to patent protection which restrict the number of suppliers of those seeds to only a handful of multinational corporations. Between 1995 and 1998 approximately 68 seed companies were acquired by, or entered into joint ventures with, with large multinational biotechnology corporations (Monsanto, Aventis, Dow, AstraZeneca, Novartis and DuPont). Ultimately, the interests of these companies rest in returns provided to their shareholders and not in feeding the world. Thus, these companies have dictated the direction of agricultural biotechnology toward the development of crops designed for large-scale, monocultured, input-intensive industrial agriculture, not the smaller-scale, diverse, sustainable agriculture so critical for feeding the world's population. In sum, exactly contrary to industry claims, biotechnology does not represent a panacea to world hunger. In fact, it actually has the significant potential hunger throughout the world. 


1. FAO The State of Food Insecurity in the World 1999 (1999) shows that the number of malnourished people gradually decreased to 790 million from over 950 million in 1970.

2. Associated Press, "Roundup Ready Soybeans Yield 6 Percent Less," May 18, 2000. 

3. Benbrook, C. Evidence of the Magnitude and Consequences of the Roundup Ready Soybean Yield Drag from University-Based Varietal Trials in 1998. (1999). 

4. New Scientist. Splitting Headache: Monsanto's Modified Soya Beans Are Cracking Up in the Heat. (1999) 

5. Memo from Dr. Edwin J. Matthews to the Toxicology Section of the FDA Biotechnology Working Group (November 14, 1991). 

6. Id. 

7. See Journal of Medicinal Food, Vol. 1 No. 4, (July 1999) at 241-45 finding significant reductions in phytoestrogens in genetically engineered soybeans compared to conventional soybeans. 

8. Hesman, T. "Bioengineered Rice Loses Glow as Vitamin A Source," St. Louis Post-Dispatch (March 4, 2001); See also, Pollan, M. "The Great Yellow Hype" New York Times (March 4, 2001). 

9.RAFI Press Release "U.S. Patent on New Genetic Technology Will Prevent Farmers from Saving Seed." (1998). 

10. Price, S. "Public and Private Plant Breeding" 17 Nature Biotechnology 938 (1999).

11. See e.g., Yoon, C., "Simple Method Found to Vastly Increase Crop Yields." New York Times (August 22, 2000). 

12. See, Carol Yoon, "Simple Method Found to Vastly Increase Crop Yields," New York Times (August 22, 2000). 

13. King, J.L. USDA, Economic Research Service, Concentration and Technology in Agricultural Input Industries (2001). 

source: http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/facts&issues/hunger.htm 18jan02

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